Cameras, Videos, Drones? A New Dimension in the Newsgathering Process

February 17, 2015

[daniel wallace/zuma press/corbis]
[daniel wallace/zuma press/corbis]

The newsgathering process is constantly evolving, and the media may soon add drones to its arsenal.

Thanks to a partnership between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and CNN, newspapers, TV stations and radio outlets may soon use remote-controlled aerial cameras, known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to obtain photos and video.

On Feb. 15, the FAA released a new draft of rules for commercial drone operation.

While still only a proposal, the regulations dictate that drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, and the operator does not need to have a pilot’s license, as described in an article from the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Tactics spoke with Tim Underhill, an instructor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Indiana, on the topic, as Ball State is one of several universities offering courses on the use of drones for journalistic purposes.

Underhill earned a bachelor’s in telecommunications and a master’s in digital storytelling at Ball State University. He is also a faculty member of the National Press Photographers Association News Video Workshop, and was previously a production manager at NewsLink Indiana.

“Allowing CNN to use drones for news coverage is hopefully a good sign for all journalists,” said Underhill, who is also a former TV news videographer.

The FAA had banned commercial use of drones until recently, when a handful of movie production studios received permission to use them for filming. Underhill said that media organizations and Congress have been pushing the FAA to develop rules on using drones.

How did the idea of using drones for newsgathering come about?

There have been several developments in UAS that make them useful for newsgathering. First, they can carry a camera that can capture images that are good enough for print and broadcast. The GoPro is a perfect example of a small, lightweight camera that can be mounted on an aircraft.

Other technology has had an impact too, such as batteries that have made [drones] smaller, lighter and longer-lasting, brushless electric motors that are more reliable and lightweight and can operate at high RPMs, and gyro-stabilization for the aircraft and the camera has made for smoother video that is less distracting.

Are there any safety concerns?

Safety is the biggest issue concerning the use of drones for capturing footage, no matter the end use. Imagine a drone falling from a couple hundred feet in the air and landing in a crowd. Sure, they only weigh a few pounds, but from that altitude, you are asking for trouble if there isn’t a clear path below. The blades can also injure people and animals if they come in contact with the aircraft. If flight regulations are followed, then the possibility of a mid-air collision with a traditional aircraft should be minimal. Drones are restricted to line of sight of the operator, a 400-foot altitude and away from airports.

I anticipate that the FAA will require some sort of certification that ensures the operator has gone through training for safe flight, and I encourage anyone interested in flying a drone to put in dozens of hours in a safe environment before trying it outside. Take a course on flying, as many of the concepts of flight translate to the smaller aircraft. Join a group that supports unmanned aerial systems, such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Understand that it’s not if — but when — you will crash your drone.

What are your thoughts on using drones for a story that does not take place in a secluded area, say, the Dallas hospital during the Ebola outbreak?

If the tool is appropriate for the story, if it advances the story without becoming the story, then it might be helpful in covering a story. I envision a time when aerial footage from a drone is used as just another tool for storytelling. I hope the novelty wears off soon so the distraction of the technology is eliminated.

Of course, safety should dictate where you are flying. You don’t have to take off, but once [you’re] up, you must land. You wouldn’t put the mast of a microwave truck up into power lines, or stand in the open during an electrical storm. But operating an unmanned aerial system has a greater impact. You could endanger other people, not just yourself.

What questions or ethical implications might arise for PR professionals if journalists start using drones?

As long as [you] follow the existing privacy regulations and professional guidelines, I don’t see any problems. You can use a drone unethically, but you can do the same with any hidden camera or microphone. That’s what will separate the professionals from those looking to make a name for themselves. Professional photographers shun the behavior of paparazzi, who may not have the same commitment to ethics. Follow the code of ethics of the Radio Television Digital News Association, Society of Professional Journalists or the National Press Photographers Association, and you can’t go wrong.

On Feb. 15, the FAA released a new draft of rules for commercial drone operation.

While still only a proposal, the regulations dictate that drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, and the operator does not need to have a pilot’s license, as described in an article from the Nieman Journalism Lab. Drones can fly only during the day and must remain within the line of sight of the operator—less than 500 feet above the ground.

At a December congressional hearing, Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, stated: “We recognize the potential benefits to our nation’s economic competitiveness, but we also recognize the potential for a safety risk if we don’t treat them as what they are: airplanes in airspace.”

Many seem to agree that while it may not be possible to foresee the effects of drones, banning them entirely would be a rash endeavor.

“Opening the technology to more people allows for the kind of innovation that nobody can predict,” said Michael Perry, a spokesman for DJI, a Hong Kong-based drone maker. —R.R.

Renée Ruggeri
Renée Ruggeri is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. Originally from Warwick, N.Y., she has bachelor’s degrees in English and journalism from the University of Richmond and a certificate in publishing from New York University.


Eyen Amos Eyen says:

It is indeed amazing to see just how the practise is evolving; it feels good to know just how much we can harness technology in our quest to bring the message. it will show come handing in difficult terrains and situations. on the whole, a great piece.

Feb. 27, 2015

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